"Dormant dream becomes reality
Singer embraces life she envisioned"
by Paul Freeman
Palo Alto Daily News
May 4, 2007
Sometimes it's just when the dream has faded that it suddenly springs into vivid reality.
Such is the case with Anjani Thomas, who had given up her musical aspirations. But her new work with legendary poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen establishes more firmly than ever Thomas' extraordinary gifts.
Cohen's background vocalist since 1984, Thomas now emerges as a full-fledged collaborator, and is coming into her own as a solo artist, too.
On the album Blue Alert, with lyrics by Cohen and music by Thomas, she sings with the subtle elegance of a melancholy sigh. Cohen, who produced the album, creates the spare and haunting ambience of a '50s jazz club, shot in black-and-white, then bathed in a cool, yet warming blue light.
The project began when Thomas, Cohen's life partner as well as musical partner, found the lyrics to the title tune sitting on a desk. Cohen had written them for himself. Thomas approached him, yearning to set these words to music.
"I'm not sure what prompted me to ask, because I'd never asked for that opportunity before," Thomas said. "But I was so taken by the lyric. I thought it was the most mysteriously beautiful thing I'd read in a long time and I felt compelled to do something with it."
Putting aside the melody dancing in his head, Cohen gave her one day to dream up a new one. Thomas believed he planned to let her down gently.
"I bore no illusions about his standards of excellence," she said. "I knew if he didn't like it, he'd say so. ... I was prepared for him not to like it. But I liked it, so I was happy I did it."
When Thomas played the song for him, "he closed his eyes and at the end, and said, 'Play it again,'" she said. "So I did and thought, 'Oh, my God, he's trying to find a way to say, 'It's okay, but it's not exactly what I want to hear.' Then he said, 'Play it again.' I couldn't stand it anymore, so I said, 'So what do you think?' He said, 'I think it's a hit.'"
She was thrilled and told him to put his vocal on it. He said he would never be able to sing it, that only her voice could bring it to fruition. Then he asked her to attempt another, and she began poring through his many journals. As soon as she read a lyric, musical concepts would float through her head.
"Pretty soon, we had a collection," she said. "These (works) were crafted pieces he had either forgotten, never considered putting to music or never found a piece of music that went where he wanted it to go.
"That's one of the beautiful things about this record - it salvaged these pieces that might have languished forever, just on the page. Here we were able to breathe some life into them."
The record also resuscitated Thomas' hopes for carving out a niche as a solo artist. "That had pretty well been drummed out of me. I had no career left to speak of," she said. "But I had a wonderful life. I was happy singing background vocals for Leonard. So to have this evolve in a very innocent and unplanned way was really nice."
In her 20s and 30s, she desperately wanted to break through as an artist, but it didn't happen. "I see now it was for the best. But it was difficult at the time. It engendered a lot of pain and no small amount of bitterness," she said. "But my story is the story of a lot of people in the arts. You don't make it to the top just because you've got oodles of talent. In fact, some of the most talented people, you never hear about."
She says, "I wish I could say I was one of those people who never gave up on the dream. I admire those people when they finally make it. But I was not one of those. I just said, 'Man, it's not happening. God's not in this for me. I'm being turned down and turned away from it. I have to honor that. There's something else I should be doing and I'd better find out what it is.'"
Following the big Los Angeles earthquake of 1993 and a general downturn in the music business, Thomas moved to Austin and took a job in a jewelry store.
"I had a real nine-to-five life. As a peripatetic musician, I always wondered what that was like - job security, health benefits, steady paycheck. My parents were thrilled. But I'll confess, I didn't do very well at it," she said, "It was just so against my nature. It gave me a great appreciation and respect for people who can thrive in that life."
Thomas toiled as a shoe saleswoman, waitress and receptionist. In the end, the struggle to put food on the table accelerated her development as a human being and as an artist. "I had not considered a life outside of music (before). To be engaged in a world not of my choosing was something I needed. It was humbling and, at the same time, enlightening," she said. "Looking back, I think, 'Good thing I didn't make it as a young kid,' because I wouldn't have known how to handle it. It's all very groovy right now. I wouldn't go back for anything.
"I finally know what bitterness is. I might have shied away from that kind of music when I was younger, because I wanted to believe in love and a perfect world. It's better when those illusions are shattered. I hadn't pursued a career as a jazz singer, because I didn't like the sound of my voice singing jazz. It didn't sound seasoned or wise or authentic enough. And it wasn't. I hadn't lived enough to imbue those qualities in the music."
On the Blue Alert album, you'll hear a worldly, deeply honest vocalist. "I'm finally singing with a voice I want to hear now. It resonates with me. I think it delivers the lyrics in a way that allows the listener to come into the story with me."
It helps to have lyrics as skillfully woven as Cohen's. "His songs are a singer's dream, so multilayered and profound. The temptation for a singer is to put his or her stamp on the song and on his lyric. That's what I expressly tried to avoid with this record," Thomas said.
"I wanted to just approach (songs) the way Leonard does, which is - don't oversing it, don't oversell it. The lyric is strong. It's airtight. And so is the music. You don't have to do all of the thinking, all the work for the listener."
Though listeners will detect country and folk threads running through her music, as well as pop, jazz and blues, Thomas calls no genre home.
Raised in Hawaii, Anjani Thomas now shifts between Montreal and Los Angeles. But she's spending much of her time winding her way through miles of Cohen's journal entries. Together, they have many more treasures to reveal.